Hip Hinge: Lift With Your Legs, Not With Your Back

Hip Hinge

The hip hinge: Arguably one of the most important movements to learn to do well. It’s the “lift with your legs, not with your back” movement. The same movement you’d want to practice if you were helping a friend move some couches and not be confined to a bed for the next few days groaning because you “threw out your back.”
So, what is this magical “hinge?” Unlock your knees and tip forward at the hips. NOT at the waist. Maintain a straight line from your head down to your hips. The purpose is to fold, like a hinge. Not bend. If you look like a candy cane after trying this, you’ve probably missed the mark.

Here are a few drills that might help smooth this out a bit. Having a broomstick or a dowel will come in handy.

Take the stick and hold it against your back. Maintain three points of contact – Back of your head, between your shoulder blades, and the tailbone. This will help you stay in a good position throughout the movement. Once the stick is in position, bend your knees slightly, and begin to tip forward. If the stick lifts off of one of those three points, the game has ended and you lose your turn. I’m kidding. Just reset and try again. If this is too difficult, try from a kneeling position. Work in a range of motion where you can maintain all three points and try to improve over time.
Another trick that may help is using a wall to sit back to. Giving yourself a target may help make more sense of the motion if it still feels weird.

Improving upon and practicing the hip hinge is essential to a strong, healthy body.

Here are a few options for light loading or a resistance band.

The Good Morning is a very useful drill with or without weight. Note that if you do not already have good patterning in the hip hinge you should definitely improve that first before adding weight. If you don’t have weight to add, that’s fine too. Just grab a towel, stick, or a resistance band (if you have one) and use that to cue your shoulders back and to give your hands something to do. To perform a good morning, simply unlock the knee and push your hips back. Pay attention to your midsection as well. Make sure you give your abdominal muscles some thought and make sure those are tight. We’ll talk more about this later. You should feel some tension in your hamstrings at the bottom. Don’t go too far or you’ll end up letting your lumbar spine round the wrong direction. This is not ideal as it could cause your spine to explode. I’m kidding, of course. But for the sake of the drill and your back, keep it in a neutral position. Once you’ve reached the bottom of your hinge position (this position may look a little different from person to person), think about squeezing your glutes to initiate your ascent back into your starting position and finish by squeezing them tight at the top.
The Band Pull Through is basically the same motion. This is why we call these movement “patterns.” There are a great many exercises that utilize certain patterns. And since we’re talking about the hinge pattern, many of these drills will look the same. The big difference here is that the resistance is coming from behind and much closer to your center of gravity instead of on top. I bet you’ll be able to recite the instructions by now. Slight bend in the knees, big bend at the hips on the way down. Brace the midsection (we’ll talk about this concept of “bracing” in a different post), squeeze the glutes tight on the way up, stand up straight at the top. Don’t let your back arch in either the bottom or top position.
The Hip Thrust. We’re going to use the same pattern once again. Except for this time, it will be horizontal. Find a bench or box of some sort. Lay on it so that you’re back, just below your shoulder blades, is on the surface. This is your fulcrum. Sit all the way down toward the floor keeping your back in a neutral position. Push through your heels and squeeze your glutes tight as you push your hips up toward the ceiling. Focus on bracing the midsection as well as squeezing the glutes. You can add a band just above the knees to add some extra glute activation throughout the drill. Just make sure that you don’t let the band pull your knees together.

In our pursuit of all things hinge we’re going to keep taking these drills further.

Let’s take that same hinge motion and put a little more weight on it. Let’s look at the Romanian Deadlift or RDL for short. Your starting position can be either from the top or bottom depending on what your set-up looks like. If you have access to an adjustable squat rack you’ll be able to set the bar at about hip height. If you don’t have access to a squat rack then you’ll need to deadlift it up from the floor into the top position. Yes, there is a difference between a regular deadlift and a Romanian deadlift. The RDL refers to a “straight-leg” variation. Except we’re going to do this with the knees slightly bent, NOT straight. I’ll show you both setups in the video.
It’s the same hinge motion and the same rules apply. Brace the midsection, slight bend in the knees, push the hips back. The goal is not to see how low you can go but to feel the drill in the muscles you’re supposed to feel it in. The bar should get to about mid-shin, give or take a few inches. That should be far enough. Then stand all the way up, squeeze all the correct stuff, rinse and repeat.
As we increase in weight you should feel everything up to your backside with the main focus on the glutes. You should feel some tension in the hamstrings at the bottom as well as some tension in the paraspinal (the muscles next to your spine). If you feel like ALL of the tension is in your low back, set the bar down, reset, refocus.
The B-Stance Deadlift is a variation that will leave you in a split stance with the focus greatly shifted onto one side. Again, all the same, rules apply except now we’re going to step one foot back and use it only as a “kickstand.”
To progress from the B-Stance all we’re going to do is elevate that back leg. Sounds easy, right? Enter the Single Leg RDL. All the same, rules apply here as well. But now we’re going to look at what your floating leg is doing and where your hips end up in relation to the floor. Ideally, your hips will stay parallel to the floor and you will be able to maintain a straight line from your head to your foot. Now, since you’ve become a master of the hip hinge by this point, I’m only going to talk about the elevated side. This is because the leg that is planted already knows what to do and will be doing most of the work. I want the other side to do some stuff too. So, as you begin to tip forward, kick your heel out behind you as if you were going to push a heavy box away from you. This should cause you to create tension in your glute and quad and help to keep you in a straight line. If you find that your hip flings up and away from the floor try turning your toes inward toward your planted leg. This will help to create some internal rotation and possibly help keep that hip down.

Author: David Krueger, NPTI, SFG-2, Physical Therapy Aide, Lincoln Park React Physical Therapy